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Iraqi Palestinian refugees Nahya Mahmoud Abdulkader (left) and her disabled son, Omar, in a Damascus refugee camp.
Phil Sands
Iraqi Palestinian refugees Nahya Mahmoud Abdulkader (left) and her disabled son, Omar, in a Damascus refugee camp.

Syria strives to resettle Iraqi Palestinians

UN officials are confident residents will be resettled as a temporary refugee camp is set to close at the Tanf border crossing, but efforts are slowed by Palestinian refugees who try to choose where they are sent.

DAMASCUS // Nahya Mahmoud Abdulkader and her disabled son, Omar, are the victims of two major wars: the long-running Arab-Israeli conflict and the shorter but also devastating fighting in Iraq.

A Palestinian, her family was displaced by the creation of Israel in 1948. Mrs Abdulkader had been a refugee in Baghdad for almost six decades, only to be displaced once again after the US-led invasion of 2003.

She, her son and 5,000 others like them are now enduring a new limbo in Syria. "We're not sure if there will be a solution for us," said Mrs Abdulkader, who is 60 years old. "The situation is difficult. Some of us have been given asylum in Europe, including two of my children, but I'm still here with Omar." The family fled Baghdad after Oday, the second of the family's six sons, disappeared on his way to work at a flour factory in June 2006. "He had left in the morning as usual and we never saw him alive again," Mrs Abdulkader said.

Two weeks later, a neighbour told her that he had been killed. She went to Baghdad's morgue and found his corpse. "He had been shot in the head," she said, crying at the memory. "I saw his hand, it was burnt; I can't forget that. His body was swollen like a balloon. We had to pay a US$1,000 [Dh3,670] bribe to get him returned, which shows the deep hatred there was against Palestinians in Baghdad then."

She said the animosity towards Palestinians was so strong that militiamen even killed the man who washed the bodies of Palestinians in preparation for burial. Palestinians were targeted largely because they were considered to have had a close association with Saddam Hussein. Also, Palestinians were Sunnis living in a Shiite part of town. After 2003, Palestinians were "sometimes killed at hospital when they were found to be Palestinians, or refused treatment for the same reason," said Philippe Leclerc, the deputy representative in Syria for UNHCR, the United Nations' refugee agency.

The danger has abated in recent years, he said, but "there are still reports of them being targeted". Syria has had an open-door policy to hundreds of thousands of refugees from Iraq, and has not forced them to remain in internment camps, unlike many other countries that restricted entry. However, Iraqi Palestinians have been treated as a special case here and are required to live in one of two temporary camps. One, at the Tanf border crossing, has been closed, but the second, at al Hoel, in the remote north-eastern province of al Hasika, is still in operation.

Syrian policy is that displaced Palestinians are the responsibility of all Arab states and that each must contribute to their cause and support their right to return to ancestral homes. Damascus already hosts more than 450,000 Palestinians and believes that the Baghdad government should have safeguarded the 35,000 Palestinians who were living in Iraq. That did not happen and many fled, leaving 12,000 Palestinians in Iraq, according to UN estimates.

More than 6,000 of them came to Syria, with the authorities allowing them to register with the UNHCR, which has then tried to find countries where the refugees can settle. About 1,200 Iraqi Palestinians have been relocated from Syria, mainly to Europe and Latin America. Among them are two of Mrs Abdulkader's adult sons, who were selected for relocation to Sweden and Italy. Mrs Abdulkader, a widow living in al Hoel camp, was offered resettlement to Italy but turned the opportunity down. She says now that was a mistake caused by her confusion at the options - or lack of - open to refugees.

"An Italian delegation said they would accept me, but I rejected that because they said they had no social welfare benefits for an elderly widow," Mrs Abdulkader explained. "I'd been told by the UN that I would get resettlement in Sweden, which would be better for my disabled son because they have good welfare programmes." Omar is in his twenties and suffered brain damage during his birth. But after she rejected the Italy option, Sweden refused to accept her, she said.

The Syrian government and UN have said they hoped to close al Hoel by early next year and find homes for those living there. Those efforts were being hampered by Palestinian refugees who try to choose where they are sent, UN officials said. Families have turned down offers of resettlement to Italy because it does not provide the same generous welfare support as Sweden, Norway or Denmark, according to the UNHCR and Iraqi Palestinian community leaders.

"Where people end up is not a UNHCR decision and they are not offered a menu of choices," Mr Leclerc said. "There are tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees and it is a simple fact that none get to choose where they would like to go." Nonetheless, Mr Leclerc expressed confidence that the majority of Iraqi Palestinians still in Syria would be resettled by early next year, while some might be allowed to stay in Syria outside of the camps.

Mrs Abdulkader said she hopes she and Omar will be able to go to Sweden, Italy or anywhere else in Europe. In the meantime, she still struggles to come to terms with what took place in Baghdad, the city she had called home since 1951. "We didn't imagine that after living in Iraq for six decades, and sharing our destiny with Iraqis, that we would live like this," she said. "After my son was killed, a neighbour came to us. He was a Shiite, but that had never mattered before, and he told us, 'You are nice people, leave by Thursday. It's for the best. Leave with your remaining children while they are alive'.

"I suppose we are lucky that we got that warning."

psands@thenational.ae

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